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An Orwellian view of climate change



A few years ago, there was a spike in the sales of George Orwell's 1984. One of the reasons cited was Kellyanne Conway's infamous interpretation of 'falsehoods' as 'alternative facts'. As Orwell scholar, Professor Stefan Collini, explained, 'That kind of unreality that is propagated as reality [in the world of 1984] is what people feel reminded of'.

George Orwell collects eggs while Big Brother type figures loom in the background. Cartoon by Chris JohnstonWhat Orwell's reaction might have been to the Trump regime is a fascinating if rather pointless speculation. But it occurred to me at the time of Conway's mind boggling 'logical' leaps that, if we are going to insist on imagining Orwell facing the complexities of 21st century populism, it might be equally fascinating to wonder about Orwell and climate change. For this there is extensive and persuasive evidence throughout his works.

Writing to Henry Miller on 26 August 1936, Orwell confessed to having 'a sort of belly to earth attitude and always feel[ing] uneasy when I get away from the ordinary world where grass is green, stones hard etc.' As if to illustrate the integrity of this revelation, he interrupts the letter because he has 'to go and milk the goat'.

Orwell was living in Wallington, Hertfordshire. He had rented a tiny, 300 year old lath and plaster cottage, sight unseen. There he wrote The Road to Wigan Pier and also set to work to make the house habitable and the plot productive. After a few hard-working months, he was making much progress on all these projects so, when he interrupted his letter to Miller, he really did have to milk the goat!

By 'belly to earth', however, Orwell meant not only the uncomplicated, hands-on approach he threw himself into at Wallington (and in later life, at Barnhill on the Hebridean island of Jura) as recorded in his domestic diaries. It also and pre-eminently denoted a quality of engagement with the natural world that he saw to be threatened by the nature of what he considered to be the 'evil' times in which he lived — a feeling familiar to many in 2019.

Looked at from one point of view, Orwell's domestic diaries at Wallington, with their daily entries detailing the hens' egg production, the vagaries of the weather, bird watching, gardening preparations, and so on, seem trivial: '14-4-39: Cloudy, and a few small showers. No apple blossom anywhere yet. Eight eggs ... 15-4-39: Chilly, windy in the evening and light showers. Began clearing out rhubarb patch. Saw another swallow ... Eight eggs. 5-8-39: Raining almost continuously until about 6.30pm ... Apples growing very fast. Nine eggs (two small) ... '

This sort of record is easy to belittle: 'On this day,' writes one modern reader, 'in January 1939: Belgium signed a trade treaty with France, 71 people died in the "Black Friday" bush fire in Victoria, and George Orwell's chickens laid two eggs'. As notations like these accumulate, however, their effect is neither to trivialise nor to become tedious. What emerges is Orwell's commitment to understanding, engaging and being in tune with the rhythms and metamorphoses of the natural world.


"Inevitably, were he alive today, he would be the target of the club-footed, philistine pseudo satire and research-free denialism of various parliamentary and other pundits."


It is not a romantic attachment nor is it ideological. 'Is it [politically] wicked to take a pleasure in spring and other seasonal changes?' he would ask himself in later years. But the answer was always clear: Orwell perceived that his small-holder activities (his recording of weather and egg laying, for example) and his general preoccupation with the persistence of nature through no matter what unlikely or unpromising circumstances, were not dwarfed by the great world but helped to give it meaning. Throughout Orwell's fiction and his essays, what Dylan Thomas, in his own quest for meaning, called 'the force that through the green fuse drives the flower' is always a powerful if sometimes temporarily muted presence.

Imprisoned in a world fracturing with wars and injustices, every one of Orwell's protagonists — even Winston Smith in 1984's Airstrip One — finds temporary solace in a brief glimpse of natural beauty or the perceived persistence of nature against apparently impossible odds; and not only his fictional characters.

This was what fascinated Orwell about Miller – the author of, among others, Tropic of Cancer, Tropic of Capricorn, Sexus, Plexus and Nexus, and on the face of it the last person we might expect him to spend time on or with. But Orwell saw Miller as an eccentric but remorseless observer of the 'evil' times they were enduring. 'He is fiddling while Rome is burning,' wrote Orwell of Miller, but 'unlike the enormous majority of people who do this, fiddling with his face toward the flames.'

It is therefore not difficult to imagine from all this what might have been Orwell's climate change 'position'. Inevitably, were he alive today, he would be the target of the club-footed, philistine pseudo satire and research-free denialism of various parliamentary and other pundits and of the 'intelligentsia' of Sky after dark. I reckon he would have managed.



Brian MatthewsBrian Matthews is honorary professor of English at Flinders University and an award winning columnist and biographer.

Topic tags: Brian Matthews, George Orwell, climate change



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Existing comments

Thanks Brian, very edifying. Excerpt from "Old Skye Tales" by William Mackenzie: "A worldly old man, who had never had a day's illness, fell suddenly ill. Fearing that his end had come, he sent for a neighbour, and requested him to read a chapter from the bible. The would-be comforter was as oblivious of his task as the sufferer, and read where the book opened, describing the destruction of the Philistines' corn. The old man was listening intently. At length he raised himself on his arm, and cried, 'Lies, John, big lies, where could they get that number of foxes!'

Pam | 15 July 2019  

Orwell would recognize the climate-change debate today. In “Nineteen Eighty Four”, Winston Smith was a “denier” who questioned accepted orthodoxy. The torturer in Room 101, O’Brien, said to him “You are mentally deranged” and he offered to cure him of his dissent. The Soviet Union stifled dissent by labelling unpopular views as “mental illness.” A few years ago, a conference on climate-change denial was organized by the University of West England’s Centre for Psycho-Social Studies. More recently, psychoanalyst Donna Orange, an adjunct professor at New York University spoke of challenging “the mental defences that prevent people from responding to climate change.” After Hurricane Harvey, some environmental activists wanted climate-change “denial” to be a crime or punishable as murder in some cases. Of course if climate-change questioning can be seen as a form of denial or psychological disorder, there is no need to engage meaningfully with those people. They can simply be dismissed—”club-footed, pseudo satire and research-free denialism”. Questioning the integrity of scientific research, which is the height of rational thinking, can even get you sacked, as was Professor Peter Ridd, a world expert on the Great Barrier Reef. Orwell would certainly recognize these hallmarks of authoritarianism.

Ross Howard | 15 July 2019  

Fifty percent of responses so far vote against the reality of climate change. Just like that other poll we just had. Frightening! Hanrahan was right.

Patrick Mahony | 16 July 2019  

Orwell's main works reveal his aversion to any form of totalitarian ideology, its methods of marginalizing or silencing alternate points of view, its distortion of history and language, and its de-voicing and disappearing of dissent. The global warming issue would, I think, like other ideological orthodoxies of our day, provide him with abundant material for his satire - though he might well encounter difficulties with publication.

John RD | 18 July 2019  

True, John RD. There is no way that anything that challenges ideologies contrary to truth in today's world would ever be published. Refusal to publish those ideologies that accord with God's teaching is a good example and probably accounts for the widespread loss of mainstream religious publishers around the world and public religious commentary in the media (press and TV). (Not enough sex and violence to entertain).

john frawley | 22 July 2019  

Yes - and there's a further problem, john f: the institutions, attitudes and practices that writers like Orwell and Aldous Huxley intended to be read as ironical are fast becoming blueprints for 'progress'. O brave new world!

John D | 23 July 2019  

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